Law school or jail. For Florencio Abad, his choice back in 1980 had been simple. A year before the formal lifting of Martial rule, he, along with four others, had been detained near Camp Aguinaldo for “conspiracy to assassinate” then President Ferdinand Marcos. Fr. Jose Cruz, at the time the president of the Ateneo De Manila University, had been negotiating with Gen. Prospero Olivas for the students’ release.
“I was going to be released at that time, which was nearing four o’clock in the morning, and the agreement was, I would stay away from trade union work, and in exchange, I was going to law school,” recalls Abad. “Fr. Cruz said I was going to be a president’s scholar so I would not have to pay for anything. I grabbed it.”
A trade union organizer back then, Abad would rather not take up law. “It was martial law. Who wanted to take up law? But I wanted to be free,” he recounts. Also, going to law school had been one of two things his father wanted him to do; the other had been to cut his hair. Abad has done both, but after his father died.
Married with a three-year-old daughter, Abad had taken the Ateneo Law School’s evening program, a five-year course designed primarily for working students. Living in Fairview, Quezon City at the time, he had worked for the non-government Philippine Business for Social Progress, and had used the two-hour bus ride from Philcoa to his office in Manila to read class cases and commentaries.
The toughest subject had been taxation, which many in class were close to flunking. Fortunately, the professor, Gerry Geronimo, had fancied running marathons. “If you run with me for at least five kilometers at least you can have additions in your grade,” Abad recalls Geronimo telling the class. So the whole class would speed off to earn those additional points. The longer they ran, the higher their grade rose, so Abad and his classmates would dash with Geronimo around Buendia and Ayala avenues in Makati. Abad recalls that a classmate collapsed during one of those marathons. “Not everybody was fit to run, but we all wanted a higher grade in taxation.”
His professor in mercantile law, the future Justice Secretary Hernando Perez, had been known as a “terror teacher,” who at one time took out a balisong and planted it on a desk. “He’ll make you stand up there and throw all sorts of insults at you,” Abad recounts. Sometimes Perez would make a bet with a student called on to recite, causing the youngster to break down and cry. “He’ll bet you money, he’ll put it there,” Abad says, adding that the professor never lost. “But he was a good teacher.”
Abad’s most memorable recitation had been with Perez, who also taught criminal procedure. Scheduled to recite on illegal possession of firearms, Abad had spent the previous night reading and re-reading the case, and preparing questions to grill himself with. “The very first question he asked me was, ‘What is the license number of the gun?’” The information had been in the case, but Abad couldn’t remember. “If you didn’t get the first question, you’re dead, so sit down.”
But even as he pursued legal education, Abad has maintained that the law was not just a set of rules. “We wanted the law to be seen as empowering. How do you make law, being a lawyer, as an instrument for empowerment and liberation? We were questioning the very orientation of the law education, law training, law practice,” he says.
This had led him and a couple of friends to put up Abogasiya Ngayon sa Ikasusulong ng Bayan (ANIB), which provided paralegal and legal support “to those who were fighting the dictatorship.” After ANIB, Abad had helped organize Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal, “which is now providing legal support to a lot of human rights victims.” Like his friends, Abad also had pursued his advocacy work alongside a teaching job at the Ateneo.
However, “a lot of our work was really political, and legal was like a support function,” he says, citing their efforts to expose the dictatorship’s use of the law to legitimize its rule. To give power back to the people, Abad has insisted in going “beyond the law.” “That’s why we had to go into politics, because politics can help you change the law,” he says.
After the 1986 Edsa uprising restored democracy, Abad has gone into politics full-time, representing the lone congressional seat of Batanes province for the better part of more than a decade. He had served in the Cabinet of two administrations to oversee areas closest to his heart: agrarian reform and education.
His most recent appointment as budget secretary of President Benigno Aquino III places Abad in the unenviable position of dispensing the state kitty, and in so doing, influencing how politicians, both elected and appointed, would address national imperatives. For a country that has a long tradition of legalized looting of state coffers, this latest appointment may very well be the biggest challenge for the activist lawyer.